Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The constraint social and moral concerns place on individual desire is perhaps the novel’s most prominent theme, since Ethan Frome’s plot is concerned with Ethan’s desire for a woman who is not his wife. By denying Zeena a single positive attribute while presenting Mattie as the epitome of glowing, youthful attractiveness, Wharton renders Ethan’s desire to cheat on his wife perfectly understandable. The conflict does not stem from within Ethan’s own heart—his feelings for Mattie never waver. Instead, the conflict occurs between his passions and the constraints placed on him by society, which control his conscience and impede his fulfillment of his passions.
Again and again, Wharton displays the hold that social convention has on Ethan’s desires. Although he has one night alone with Mattie, he cannot help but be reminded of his domestic duties as he sits in his kitchen. He plans to elope and run away to the West, but he cannot bring himself to lie to his neighbors in order to procure the necessary money—and so on. In the end, Ethan opts out of the battle between his desires and social and moral orders. Lacking the courage and strength of will to face down their force, he chooses to abandon life’s burdens by abandoning life itself.
Ethan Frome, the novel’s protagonist, is described by an old man as having “been in Starkfield too many winters.” As the story progresses, the reader, and the narrator, begin to understand more deeply the meaning of this statement. Although a wintry mood grips Ethan Frome from the beginning—even the name Starkfield conjures images of northern winters—the narrator appreciates the winter’s spare loveliness at first. However, he eventually realizes that Starkfield and its inhabitants spend much of each year in what amounts to a state of siege by the elements. The novel suggests that sensitive souls like Ethan become buried emotionally beneath the winter—their resolve and very sense of self sapped by the oppressive power of the six-month-long cold season. Ethan yearns to escape Starkfield; when he was younger, we learn, he hoped to leave his family farm and work as an engineer in a larger town. Though Zeena and poverty are both forces that keep Ethan from fulfilling his dream, the novel again and again positions the climate as a major impediment to both Ethan and his fellow townsfolk. Physical environment is characterized as destiny, and the wintry air of the place seems to have seeped into the Starkfield residents’ very bones.